After Jack the Beagle died around this time last year, lacerating our hearts with his damned stoicism, struggling to stand up and show affection even as whatever was wrong with him starved his brain of oxygen (we never found out, having drawn the line at caging him for days in an animal hospital and transfusing his blood so that a camera in a capsule could be sent through his digestive tract), my wife and I eventually looked at one another and asked the question: another dog, or no more dogs?
What a devil of a question that question is.
No dog means no disgusting surprises on carpets – thank goodness for those irrigating vacuums they sell at Canadian Tire – no hefty vet bills, no destruction of everything from eyeglasses to baseboards to legs of furniture, and no responsibility.
People who don’t own dogs can stay out as late as they please, or drive off on a whim for the weekend, and go on holiday as long as they like, whenever they like, without arranging a kennel, then feeling guilty about arranging a kennel, and then spending even more money to have someone stay in the house and dogsit. There is freedom in having no dog.
Assuming the role of God
Oh, one other thing people who don’t own dogs don’t have to do: assume the role of God. Sooner or later, like Jack the Beagle did, the dog will grow quiet, and start spending hours far back in a closet.
So you take the little fellow to the vet, hoping maybe it was something he’d eaten, or slurped up in a mud puddle, but really you know what’s probably happening. And the vet will poke a bit, and look at his gums, and say well, he’s getting older, maybe after a few tests we’ll know better.
So you do the tests, but they aren’t conclusive, and the little fellow just gets feebler. Then you have to decide whether to do more tests, because modern veterinary science has an inexhaustible pantry of tests, and you can see the little fellow shrink in fear at the vet’s door.
You know all he wants to do is be quiet and around his humans as his life ends, but for heaven’s sake, he’s family, and if you can have just another year or so with him, well, what are a few more tests, right? And sometimes you can get a few more years, but often you can’t, and the moment arrives when you have to be God.
- Human-dog bond dates back to ancient times, research shows
- Puppy dog eyes are no accident, research study shows
So you ask the vet, what should I do? And the vet, who has to deal with this all the time, which is one reason for the high suicide rate in that profession, will say it’s your decision, that the little fellow can be kept comfortable, and that there are specialists with cameras in capsules who can try one or two more things.
And by now all the other customers out in the waiting room know what’s going on, and are trying to look away. And you notice the sign that says something like “When this candle is on, a beloved family member is crossing the rainbow bridge, and we would ask for a respectful quiet,” or some similar bit of mush.
Anyway, it’s awful. Sad, and awful. And it’s something you think about when you ask one another that devil of a question a few weeks later, after you’ve noticed how still and quiet the house has become.
Anyway, my wife settled the discussion with a simple observation. We are dog people. Dogs bring joy to our home.
So, last fall, spurning freedom, we brought home Charley, a small Australian Shepherd.
Aussies are quick, good-looking, emotional creatures that actually seem able to grin and talk, and bond fanatically with you.
Then my son suggested that really, Charley needed a pal, and the idea took hold, and friends with two dogs said it really wasn’t much more work than having one. So we looked, and considered, and last spring, we brought home Lola.
Lola is a border collie, finer boned and cooler and more aloof than Charley. Like Charley, she came from a breeder, with health records proving her forebears free of congenital defects like hip dysplasia. She even came with a health guarantee.
Lola and Charley have been wrestling and nipping and nuzzling from the day she arrived. Now they even seem to walk in sync. My daughter says if they were celebrities, Charley would be Jimmy Fallon and Lola would be Tilda Swinton. They’re lovely.
But the God thing is back, and so quickly.
Lola has severe dysplasia, it turns out; congenitally deformed hip sockets. She limps a bit, although the vet says, dreadfully, that she’s probably so used to the pain she regards it as normal. At nine months of age, she already has osteoarthritis. It’s getting worse, and something has to be done.
A total hip replacement, we are told, or a “head and neck femoral excision,” meaning a surgeon cuts her open and lops off the top of her femurs; she would not walk or run normally again, but at least the arthritis would be gone.
Or, per the health guarantee, she can be sent back to the breeder, who lives on a farm and is a vet-in-training. The breeder is somewhat vague about what would become of Lola if she returned.
There are no good options, to use that hackneyed phrase. The question is, what’s the right thing to do?
A good friend, a border collie fanatic, says the only thing to do is put Lola down. Do not send her to the breeder, he says, you are what she knows and trusts. Have the vet come to the house and hold her in your arms while she dies. She will never be happy if she can’t run and jump and work. Her life will be misery.
A hip replacement involves implanting hardware; that comes with a risk of complications, and if it fails, Lola will be have to be put down anyway, having gone through what amounts to two bouts of torture on a surgeon’s table.
The femoral excisions have a better chance of success. Barring complications, she will live to walk and even run again, after a fashion. But is it right to put a dog through such pain at all? Leave an athletic, driven animal partially crippled, because I can afford it and want her to stick around? I know the pain of hip operations, but vets assure me dogs experience pain and recovery differently. I don’t know about that.
I know, First World problems. And I know we anthropomorphize our pets. But anyone who speaks dog will understand.
I swear Lola gazes at us with utter trust. She has no idea what’s coming. For now, I take her to the beach every day, and she takes long swims in the warm September river water and glories in fighting Charley for sticks, but she yips in pain sometimes.
I saw a bumper sticker once that stayed with me: “God help me become the person my dog thinks I am.”
I don’t have the heart for this. Meaning, of course, that I’m the failure.